Is the U.S. still governable? The dramatic and irrational wrestling of the past few days over the ability of the government to pay its debts broaches this question seriously. Over many decades, the politics of the U.S. has functioned according to the same model: each opposing party runs a campaign against those up there in Washington, always a popular topic in the giant country, far-removed from government. As soon as they themselves obtain power in the capital, Democrats as well as Republicans quickly swing into the habitual path of compromise.

As unpopular as compromise is in conflict-loving America, in principle, the political system that has been working according to the same rules for over two hundred years has been based on it. The system of checks and balances desired by the fathers of the constitution and the mutual independence of the President and the Congress can only function if, in the face of deep differences of opinion, everyone sticks to the rules and is prepared to compromise sometimes.

The country is deeply divided

A whole group of people washed into Congress last year with the Republican representatives from the fundamentalist tea party, who reject compromise in principal. The political system of the U.S. is defenseless against this position. The subversive tea party movement has not only hijacked the Republican Party, but as a radical minority, it has been very good at driving the majority of Congress and President Barack Obama along with it. It determines the political agenda and has inflicted heavy defeats on the leader of its own party, John Boehner, as well as Obama. It has demonstrated both to be unable to act for weeks.

The tea party has rediscovered the great ideological controversy that has divided the U.S. in principle since the time of the New Deal back to its bare, real core. It is a matter of whether the U.S. will remain a social state, in which the winners make society secure with taxes so that the losers do not perish, or whether it becomes a society of predators, in which everyone has the right to his entire spoils, his entire earnings, and any tax is viewed as theft.

The tea party ideologues pursue this controversy without any moral or political decorum and with a merciless harshness, which one can only hope will turn against itself in the end. The majority of Americans recognize that the same is valid in politics as in everyday life: Without a willingness to compromise, no progress is made. And that people who take a whole country hostage for their fundamental cause are not suited to lead. The tea party has not created the country’s decades-long immobilizing polarization, but has sharpened it again. They have also declared the first black president to be fair game, an object of hate, not at all deserving of respect. The Republicans already tried that once with Bill Clinton, whom they subjected to ludicrous impeachment proceedings. At that time, they ultimately failed because the majority of Americans don’t want such an immoderate, incendiary form of political controversy.

The formal government bankruptcy has just been avoided. But how does the U.S. stand? Nothing has changed regarding the immeasurable debt. Politically, the country is deeply divided. High unemployment and low growth rates prevail. Tens of thousands of soldiers wage a lost war in Afghanistan. The international influence of America is lower than ever before. It is a pitiful balance for a superpower. For a president who was elected with such great hopes, Barack Obama was unable to fulfill them; so disastrous was the legacy left behind by George W. Bush.

But Obama has shown unanticipated weakness, particularly in the conflict about the budget. His principle of “leading from behind,” leading from the background, appears to be a weakness in times of conflict and great polarization. Yet he has a chance for reelection in the coming year: the level-headedness of the citizens, who trust a mediator more than a divider. That is, however, the last hope for the governability of the United States.